It’s already been a summer for the record books. And not in a good way.
The heat wave in the Pacific Northwest at the end of June set more than 200 all-time heat records in a part of the country unaccustomed to high summer temperatures. Temperatures in Portland, Oregon reached 116 degrees Fahrenheit. Elsewhere in the West, wildfires are roaring — more than 80 blazes have occupied firefighters, threatened communities, and sent smoke across wide swathes of the country. The fires are exacerbated by the hot, dry conditions. More than 93% of the West is in some kind of drought. On the other side of the weather spectrum, the Southeast was recently battered by Hurricane Elsa, the earliest “E” storm ever recorded.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. We can improve our energy system and combat the forces causing extreme weather events in the first place.
Those are a whole bunch of records we don’t want to break. And that’s just in the US. Globally, even more extreme weather events have been wreaking havoc.
Climate change is leading to an increase in severe weather events
All these extreme weather events are a direct result of the climate crisis. Scientists believe that the heat dome in the Pacific Northwest would have been virtually impossible without the climate crisis. The temperatures were so extreme that scientists are actually struggling to quantify just how rare the heat wave was — it should not have happened. Rare as it was, it would have been 150 times less likely without climate change.
Climate change could make future extreme heat waves more likely. Scientists have also found that the risk of a tropical storm becoming a Category 3 or higher hurricane is growing. Fed by heat and drought, wildfires in the West are burning double the acreage they would without climate change.
We can no longer ignore that climate change is making an impact. It’s here. It’s having massive costs — authorities in the Pacific Northwest and Canada are looking at as many as 800 heat-related deaths, and the extreme cold in Texas earlier this year is believed to have killed 700 people. The people most affected are minority and low-income communities. And these events are just going to get worse if we don’t make changes.
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A power grid under strain
Our power grid wasn’t built for today’s climate. It struggles to keep up with extreme weather events. There are a few reasons for this.
As residents crank air conditioners and fans in a desperate attempt to stay cool during a heat wave (or turn up heaters to stay warm in a cold snap), demand for electricity soars. In the best-case scenario, grid operators have to turn on old, dirty power plants to meet this increased demand. In the worst-case scenario, the grid is overwhelmed, causing blackouts. That happened in this last heat wave — some 6,000 people in Portland lost power, which made the extreme conditions even more dangerous.
Aging grid infrastructure
The power grid just doesn’t work as well in extreme weather events. Extreme heat can reduce the efficiency of power plants; cause equipment to overheat; and make power lines sag as the metal in them expands, bringing them into contact with trees and potentially causing outages. Extreme cold can have similar effects on the grid, as Texas demonstrated this winter.
When the grid isn’t functioning well or there’s more demand for power than there is supply, utility customers can see rolling blackouts or requests to reduce their power usage. Residents in California, Texas, and New York have all been asked to conserve power this summer to avoid over-straining the grid.
Renewable energy to the rescue?
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. We can improve our energy system and combat the forces causing extreme weather events in the first place. In short, we have to invest in more renewable energy.
As we electrify more things, we need to make sure our electricity is coming from renewable sources. Otherwise it continues to burn fossil fuels and release greenhouse gases into the air, contributing to global warming — and the catastrophic weather events it causes. Unless we drastically reduce fossil fuel use, global temperatures could rise another three to four degrees Celsius by the end of the century. That, to put it simply, would be a disaster.
This urgency is why we’re working to expand access to community solar — it’s one of the most direct ways that utility customers can add more clean power to the power supply. But we can’t just rely on adding more wind and solar power. We need to improve the grid itself, too, to make it more resilient.
Our grid infrastructure is in dire need of an update. The American Society of Civil Engineers has given the US energy infrastructure a D+ or C- for the past decade. Not great. To make the grid resilient, we need to invest in ways to make renewable energy more flexible:
- Better energy storage - Solar power is most abundant in the middle of the day while the sun is shining. Makes sense, right? Unfortunately, that doesn’t match times of peak electricity demand, which tend to be first thing in the morning and in the evening. We need better ways to store solar energy until it’s needed on the grid.
- Improved energy transmission - In addition to improved energy storage, we need to be able to transmit renewable energy to where it’s needed most. Many wind farms, for instance, are in unpopulated areas. If we can transmit that electricity to more densely populated areas, wind power becomes a more viable option.
- More use of load flexibility - Energy companies have always been able to predict energy consumption, but they can’t control it. Historically, they’ve overbuilt supply to meet times of peak energy demand, which means many “peaker plants” sit idle much of the time. Devices like smart thermostats and water heaters, however, can make energy demand much more predictable by shifting the time that energy is used (for instance by heating water, which holds its temperature, at times of lower demand). This is known as load flexibility. If we can reduce large peaks in energy demand by spreading that demand out over the course of the day, we can stop overbuilding power supply, take better advantage of renewable power sources when they’re most active, and reduce carbon emissions and spending on peaker plants.
- More investment in other forms of carbon-free energy - Right now, solar and wind power have their limits (storage and vulnerability to weather — the same high-pressure systems that cause heat domes like the one in the Pacific Northwest often bring still air, decreasing wind power). Zero-carbon sources such as geothermal energy and hydropower can help meet demand for electricity, although extreme heat and drought hurt hydropower, too.
A better energy grid is possible. So is a future where we limit the number of devastating weather catastrophes. In the meantime, we’ve got you covered with tips to survive the summer heat without sending your power bill soaring.